William Michael Rossetti William Shakespeare.

The complete works of Shakespeare: With a critical biography online

. (page 2 of 224)
Online LibraryWilliam Michael Rossetti William ShakespeareThe complete works of Shakespeare: With a critical biography → online text (page 2 of 224)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


It remains none the less astonishing to all lovers of art that any such artist as
Shakespeare should have tolerated the haphazard and harumscarum mode of
publication of his dramas which alone he lived to see effected. In 1598 were
published Lovis labour's Lost^ and Henry IV, ^ Part I. ; in 1600 Midsummer
Nights Dream^ the Merchant of Venice^ Henry /F., Part II., Henry F., Much
Ado about Nothing^ and (in a second edition) Titus Andronicus* ; in 1602 the
Merry Wives of Windsor ; in 1603 Hamlet^ an unauthorised edition, followed in
1604. by a more correct one ; in 1608 King Lear ; in 1609 Troilus and Cressida,
and Pericles, Moreover before 1598 the Two Gentlemen of Verona^ the Comedy
of Errors^ Lovis Labour^s Won (which is probably identical with AlPs Well thai
Ends Welt)y and King John had been produced on the stage. The other plays
not distinctly accounted for as to year of writing and first representation, are
As You Like It (towards 1600), Julius Casar^ and Twelfth Night (towards 1602),
Mecuure for Measure^ and Othello (towards 1604), Macbeth (towards 1610).



Digitized by



Google



Digitized by



Google



Digitized by



Google



LIFE OF WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE. xvii

Passionate Pilgrim in 1 599, and the general body of the sonnets in 1609. These
compositions, or some not now definable portion of them, were spoken of as
^his sugared sonnets among his private friends" in the Palladis Tanda of
Meres, published in 1598, and must therefore be assigned to a date much
earlier than 1609. The particular form of the sonnet adopted by Shakespeare
had been exemplified by Samuel Daniel in %work issued in 1592, and before
him by Lord Surrey and others.

When we speak of those greatest dramatic and intellectual master-strokes of
the world's literature, we should not forget the material condition, to modem
notions ludicrously primitive, of the theatres in which they were presented.
That the female characters were all acted by boys is not so much to the pur*
pose ; though we can hardly doubt that such immaturely juvenile actors were
always mediocre actors, and we must think accordingly of the Lady Macbeth,
Cleopatra, Rosalind, Juliet, or Desdemona, of those days. A pair of crossed
swords, or sometimes two lathes, symbolised a battle ; the shirt worn outside the
dress showed a knight ; the housekeeper's petticoat over a broomstick stood for
a caparisoned horse. In 1598 one theatre possessed as its properties the limbs
of a Moor, a dragon, a large horse with its legs, a cage, a rock, four heads of
Turks and one of Mahound, a wheel, and hell's mouth. Another owned a sun,
a target, the triple plume of the Prince of Wales with motto, ^six devils, and the
pope astride of a mule.

Shakespeare's supreme genius, and the hearty public acceptance of his dramas,
were not likely to pass unbespattered by eifvy ; Greene, in his Groatsworth of
Wit (already referred to), in enforcing the general text that play-writing had
become a work unfit for gentlemen, and that actors were presumptuous and un •
grateful, adverted malignantly to "an upstart crow beautified in our feathers, that,
with his tiger's heart wrapped in a player's hide, supposes he is as well able to
bombast-out a blank verse as the best of you ; and, being an absolute Johannes
Factotum, is, in his own conceit, the only Shakescene in a country." This was
confuted, however, by Greene's own editor Chettle, who is the earliest known
eulogist of Shakespeare, and who speaks (among other more strictly personal
merits), of his " facetious grace in writing." Here " facetious " is probably not
to be taken in its modem meaning of " witty " or " humorous," but rather in a
more general sense — " ingenious, felicitous ; " nevertheless it might seem that
contemporaries were more especially struck, in the earlier work of Shakespeare
at any rate, with his brilliancy in wit and repartee. His plays became the town-
talk ; Queen Elizabeth had them represented at court, and, being charmed with
the Falstaff of /fif«rK /^^i' said to have wished to see the camal knight on the
boards in love — which gave the hint for writing the Merry IVives of Windsor,
Her successor was not less discerning, and Shakespeare was the favourite play-
wright of James I. Ward's Diary (dating firom 1648 to 1679) records a report
that Shakespeare, living in his later days at Stratford, supplied the stage with



Digitized by



Google



xviu LIFE OF WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE,

two plays every year, and for this received an allowance so large that he spent
at the rate of ;^iooo per annnm. The diarist was vicar of Stratford, and not
unlikely to have some knowledge of his facts ; yet the statement can hardly be
accepted in detail

The richness of Shakespeare's vocabulary is partly the richness of his mind *
it has been computed that he usas about 15,000 words, while even so g^eat a
poetic successor as Milton numbers only about 8000. We find in him the
technical phraseology, not alone of law as previously mentioned, but equally of
medicine, surgery, chemistry, war, navigation, field-sports, music, necromancy,
printing. He seems to have known French and Italian : some of his plays are
founded on Italian originals whereof no contemporary translation can be traced.

3. Shaksepeare the Man. Beyond the few matter-of-foct details that we know
concerning the dramatist's life after he came to the capital, we must turn to his
sonnets for information. We know, for instance, that he had not been many
years in London before he began providing for his ultimate re-settlement in
Stratford-on-Avon. Early in 1597 he bought for £(30 (a sum which may be
roughly computed as equal to ;£6oo at the present day) the house named New
Place, about the very best in Stratford. In 1602 he bought for Cy^o some arable
land, 107 acres, in the parish of Old Stratford ; and in the same year some
property in the town. In 1605 ensued his largest purchase — £^^o for the re-
mainder of a lease, thirty-one years, of the tithes of Stratford, Old Stratford,
Bishopton, and Welcombe. In 1604, when he must still have been a London
actor, he prosecuted one Rogers, V^ho had bought a quantity of malt from him,
and left the debt unpaid ; and in 1608 he sued John Addenbrooke for a small
debt, and, on Addenbrooke's absconding, proceeded against his security : trivial
facts which have been cited, and no doubt truly so as far as they go, as showing
that the author of Julius Casar and King Lear was a business-man looking
sharply, like others, after his own material interests. Some other facts of similar
bearing will be mentioned in the sequel. He was in the practice of visiting Strat-
ford regularly, perhaps even once every year, during his London career. The
exact state of his family relations is open to conjecture. It is presumed that, on
first coming to the capital, he left his wife and three children in Stratford : they
may or may not have rejoined him at a later date. He lived near the Bear (harden,
Sonthwark, in 1596 : in 1609 he occupied a good house within the Liberty of the
CHnk, He frequented the Mermaid Tavern in Cheapside, close to Bread Street,
as a member of a club founded by Sir Walter Raleigh : here he waged his famous
'* wit-combats " with Ben Jonson (ten years his junior), graphically described by
Fuller. " Many were the wit-combats betMrixt him and Ben Jonson, which two
I beheld like a Spanish great galleon and an English man-of-war. Master Jonson,
like the former, was built far higher in learning ; solid, but slow in hts per-
formances. Shakespeare, like an English man-of-war, lesser in bulk but lighter
in sailing, could ttun with all tides, tack about, and take advantage of all winds.



Digitized by



Google



LIFE OF WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE. six

by the quicknen of his wit and invention.'' Jonson himself has left a pleasant
lecord of '* gentle Shakespeare," saying : * I loved the man, and do honour his
memory on this side idolatry, as much as any : he was indeed honest, and of an
open and free nature.* This accords with the testimony of Chettle, who (in ad-
dition to expressions already quoted) speaks of Shakespeare's ^ civil demeanour/
and his ^'honesty," by which we should understand well-bred straightforwardness,
the distinctive mark of a gentleman.

And now for the sonnets. This series, numbering 154 items, has, as we all
know, been the object of all sorts of disquisitions and commentaries ; some aim-
ing to show that the sonnets contribute nothing, or next to nothing, to Shake-
speare's biography ; others, that they are written as in the person of a different
speaker ; others, that their main object is literary satire, a *' take-off" of the
excesses of amorous sonneteers. Others again, accepting the sonnets as sub-
stantially autobiographical, debate to whom they are addressed, whence originat-
ing, and why presenting the poet to us in the light in which they do present him ;
and one frequent attempt has been to explain away such primd facie appearances
in the sonnets as might induce us to think that Shakespeare was fond to fatuity
of a male friend, and illicitly enamoured of a female inveigler. For my part,
having given the sonnets the best consideration in my power, I can come to but
one conclusion— namely, that these are the very points which must not be ex-
plained away; that the sonnets pourtray to us Shakespeare hunself, and such as
he really was in sentiment and environment. I can discover no reason why the
sonnets, in this their twofold aspect, should not be a faithful picture of a certain
stage in Shakespeare's life ; and, therefore firmly, believe that he entertained
a long-standing and most ardent attachment for a youth of high rank and
eminent endowments of person and spirit, and that he got entangled with a
paramour of some fascination and no character. Why, indeed, should we dis-
believe either or both of these plainly intimated facts? The only reason
appears to be that we^ or some of ns, would rather not believe them if we
could help.

Who the woman may have been is totally obscure — sonnet 152 shows her
to have been a married woman : but the man has been searched for with
diligence, and with some dim semblance of successful result The sonnets
were never published by Shakespeare himself ; but in 1609 they were printed
and issued by a bookseller, Thomas Thorpe, whose few words of intro-
ductory inscription' seem to imply that the male friend to whom most of
the poems relate was a certain " Mr. W. H." I say **S€em to imply ; " for
the syntactic construction of the words, no less than the meaning of one



Digitized by



Google



XX LIFE OF WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE.

discussion. Assuming then that Mr. W. H. is the young man celebrated in the
sonnets, we have to inquire who is represented by these initials. Henry
Wriothesly, Earl of Southampton, and William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, are
the only two probable competitors started by name. Each of these men was in
1609 a peer, and not a ** Mr. : " but it is allowed on all hands that the applica-
tion of the term " Mr." to a peer would be an anomaly not unexampled at that
period. Both Wriothesly and Herbert were personally well known to Shake-
speare : the former, so far as all records go, was certainly the better known of
the two, and was, as we have already seen, a specially attached friend of his.
The inversion of the initials " W. H." if Wriothesly is meant, whereas there is
no inversion if Herbert is meant, counts for a little in favour of Herbert ; not
for very much, for the inscription is obviously reticent to some extent, and may
have been purposely reticent even to the extent of such an inversion. Wrio-
thesly was bom in 1573, and would at the presumed date of the earliest Among
the sonnets — say 1597 — have been twenty-four years of age. Herbert, who is
known to have been a handsome young man, was bom in 1580, and wou]4 in
1597 have been but seventeen; an age which, youthful as it is, need not be
deemed absolutely inconsistent with the tone of the sonnets, especially in the
mind of Shakespeare who had himself married at eighteen. Besides, if the
earliest sonnets may be dated about 1597, many others are of course later than
that : one of them seemingly refers to the death of Queen Elizabeth in 1603,
and the accession of James I. — No. 107, beginning

** Not mine own fean nor the prophetic sooL"

Altogether it seems that the claim of Herbert is rather the preferable one of the
two. To me, accepting the sonnets as fairly autobiographical, it appears pretty
dear that the friend who is represented in them as having intrigued with
Shakespeare's mistress, and whom I plainly understand to be the same person
as the friend mentioned in the earlier sonnets, must have been named William,
not Henry ; and, if so^ Herbert Earl of Pembroke, not Wriothesly Earl of
Southampton. I found this opinion on the following three sonnets (135, 136^
and 143) addressed to the woman.

I must now leave the sonnets, and revert to the general course of Shakespeare's
hfe. — He was probably still resident in London in 161 1 ; by 1612 he is known to
have been resettled at Stratford, which continued to be his home for the few
remaining years of his life. The alderman's truant son retumed to his native
town a man of more worldly consequence, even in the eyes of his solid, hum-
drum, provincial fellow-citizens, than his father had ever been ; he occupied the
best house in Stratford, and was in all likelihood the '* greatest man " in that
small town, as well as in '^ the great globe itself." His only son Hamnet had
died in 1596, his father in 1601, his mother in 1608. Hb eldest daughter
Susanna had in 1607 married Dr. Hall, a local physician of some eminence, and
they already had a daughter, Elizabeth, bom in 1608. Shakespeare's wife, and



Digitized by



Google



LIFE OF WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE. xri

his younger daughter Judith, kept house with him. That he continued attentive
to his own minor interests is shown by his having, in 1612, joined in a petition to
the Court of Chancery to compel certain sharers with himself in the farming of ■
the tithes to pay their quota of a general* burden ; and by his having resisted,
in 1614, a proposed enclosure of some common lands detrimental to his property.
In February 1616 he married his daughter Judith to Mr. Thomas Quiney. It
may have been in preparation for this event that on the 25th of January he had
drawn up his will ; in that instrument, which was finally executed on the 25th of
March, he professes himself to be " in perfect health and memory," so that there
is nothing to indicate that he was then sensible of his closely impending death.
By the will he left all his lands, tenements, &c., to Susanna ; only £3/00 to
Judith ; and (by interlineation) his second-best bed with its furniture to his
wife ; and some trifling legacies were added. The insignificant bequest to his
wife has often been commented upon, as showing that the poet held her in slight
regard : to this it is replied that, as almost all his estates were freehold, she was
adequately provided for out of these by law, in the form of dower. It would
seem that Shakespeare died worth no large sum in actual money ; another infer-
ence is that he must, at some time or other, have disposed of his theatrical
property, which does not figure at all in his will

In another month Shakespeare was no more ; he died on the ajrd of April
1616. The only record of the cause of death, real or fictitious, is in Ward's
Diary : ^' Shakespeare, Drayton, and Ben Jonson, had a merry meeting, and, it
seems, drank too hard, for Shakespeare died of a fever there contracted.* On
the 25th he was buried in the Parish-church of Stratford, with the following
epitaph — ^not, we may reasonably suppose, the composition of such a brain and
hand as were now for ever at rest within his grave :

** Good friend, for Jesus* sake forbear
To dig the dust endoaed here :
Blest be the man that spares these stones^
And cursed be he that mofves my bones."

Shakespeare's widow survived him seven years, dying in August 1623. His
daughter Susanna Hall (the inheritor of the bulk of his pj;operty, and obviously
therefore the person through whom he had hoped to '' found a family," if that,
aa has sometimes been supposed, was really an object he had at heart) had but
one chUd Elizabeth. This lady married Thomas Nash, Esquire, and after his
death John Barnard, Esquire, knighted by Charles II. in 1661 ; she had no
children, and died in 167a Shakespeare's second daughter, Judith Quiney,
had three sons, who died unmarried. And so, in brief space, the race of
William Shakespeare was eactinct

^ What, win the aspiring blood of Lancaster
Sink in the ground T I thought it would haye mounted I"

—It may be added that the poet Sir William Davenant, author of Gondibiri^

Digitized by VjOOQ IC



xxii LIFE OF WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE.

was regarded by some contemporaries as an illegitimate son of Shakespeare^

and was himself not averse to countenancing this surmise.

The principal portraits representing Shakespeare, or supposed to represent
him, are the Stratford bust adjacent to liis grave, the Droeshout engraving, the
Chandos painting, the Jansen painting, and the Felton Head; also a mask, taken
apparently after death, belonging to Herr Becker of Darmstadt, and at one time
deposited with Professor Owen, and the Kesselstadt picture (of a man lying
dead), which, if the mask is accepted as authentic, may be surmised to be
the like. The first two alone are certainly known to pourtray Shakespeare :
they correspond closely enough , while the others deviate considerably in one
respect or another. The bust was praised in 1623 as a faithful likeness ; it
was executed by Gerard Johnson, a Hollander, after the author's decease ;
the authority from which he worked is dubious, but b believed to have
been a cast taken after death — ^not (the internal evidence suggests as much)
the one above-mentioned belonging to Herr Becker. This bust was originally
(and is now again) coloured, and shows light hazel eyes and auburn hair and
beard. I need not enlarge upon other details in a matter so well known
to all my readers. The Droeshout portrait was also produced in 1623,
in the first collected edition of Shakespeare's plays. It was eulogized by Ben
Jonson ; and has been accepted as a true likeness by the idealist poet and
painter William Blake, who professed to have seen Shakespeare's ghost, and
who was at any rate better qualified than ninety-nine persons out of a hundred
to infer from a man's spiritual product what his outer semblance might fittingly
have been.



Digitized by



Google



THE CHRONOLOGY OF SHAKESPEARE'S WRITINGS.

BY PROFESSOR EDWARD DOWDEN.

The most fruitful method of studying the works of Shakespeare is that which
views them in the chronological order of their production. We thus learn
something about their origin, their connection one with another, and their re-
lation to the mind of their creator, as that mind passed from its early promise
to its rich maturity and fulfilment. If we knew nothing about their date, we
might well wonder how the same man could be the author of Lov^s Labor^s
Lost and of King Lear. Viewed in the chronological order we perceive that the
one was the work of Shakespeare's clever 'prentice hand, the other the outcome
of his manhood with its sorrow and experience ; and we can trace some por-
tions at least of the path of transition from the earlier play to the later.

PERIODS OF Shakespeare's career. — groups and dates of plays.

By means of internal and external evidence we are enabled to determine the
precise dates of some of Shakespeare's works, in the case of others we can at
least approximate to the dates ; only in a few cases are we left to conjecture
where, within a range of at most some ^"^^ or seven years, a drama should be
placed. Thus, if there is uncertainty here and there in an attempt to assign
dates to each particular play, there is little or no uncertainty in naming groups
of plays in chronological order, leaving undetermined the order of the plays
within those groups.

Shakespeare's entire career of authorship extends over twenty years and up-
wards, beginning about 1588 or 1590, ending about 1612 : ten years and upwards
lie in the sixteenth century, ten years and upwards in the seventeenth. Now the
division of the centuries marks roughly a division in the career of Shakespeare.
About 1 601 his genius began to seek new ways ; the histories and joyous
comedies ceased to be created, and the great series of tragedies was com-
menced. But each of the decades, which together make up the years of
Shakespeare's authorship, is itself clearly divisible into two shorter periods :
first, from about 1590 to 1595-96, years of dramatic apprenticeship and experi-

xxiii

Digitized by VjOOQ IC



xxiv THE CHRONOLOGY OF SHAKESPEARE'S WRITINGS,
ment; secondly, from about 1595-96 to about 1600-1601, the period of the
English historical plays and the mirthful and joyous comedies ; thirdly, from
1 60 1 to about 1608, the period of grave or bitter comedies and of the great
tragedies; last, from about 1608 to 161 1 or 1613, the period of the romantic
plays, which are at once grave and glad, serene and beautiful poems, like The
Tempest and The Winter^s Tale. These four periods may be designated with
reference to the class of works written in each, or with reference to the sub-
jecte of those works, or with reference to the kind of versification which was
characteristic of each period, or with reference to Shakespeare's supposed con-
dition and state of mind in each. I think the reader will remember the follow-
ing names of the four periods, which may seem fanciful, yet which perhaps
convey as much true information as any others : I will call the first period,
" In the workshop ; " the second, " In the world ; " the third, " Out of the
depths ; " the fourth, •* On the heights." The significance of these names will
appear as we proceed.

Now let us go farther, and try to make out groups of Shakespeare's pla)rs in
chronological order. Shakespeare began his apprenticeship by re-handling
plays which were not his. Of such work we have examples in Titus Andron-
icus and the First Part of Henry VL, plays of blood, bombast, and fire, pre-
Shakespearian in spirit, but showing touches of that hand which even in its
apprentice years was capable of master-touches. These two plays we name
(i.) the " pre-Shakespearian group."

Next, the young dramatist went to work on his own account, and began to
experiment in different kinds of comedy. Love's Labor's Lost is full of a
young man's thought, wit, and satire, a comedy of oddities, of dialogue carefully
elaborated and pointed (as dialogue in a first original work would be), and
underlying this a young man's theory with reference to culture and education ;
The Comedy of Errors is a comedy of incident, almost a farce ; The Two
Gentlemen of Verona is a first and somewhat slight experiment in the same
kind of love-comedy of which Shakespeare afterwards created so many delight-
ful examples ; A Midsummer Night^s Dream is bright with the poetry of a
young man's fancy ; in Theseus there is a fine sketch of heroic character, and
in Bottom and his companions we find Shakespeare's richest humorous work
of this period. Whether The Two Gentlemen of Verona or A Midsummer
Night 'j Dream was written first cannot be dedded. This group of four plays
we name (ii.) " Early Comedy."

While engaged upon this group Shakespeare's powers as a rising pla)rwright
must have been recognized; before he had completed it Venus and Adonis
was published. When Chettle wrote in 1 592, Shakespeare had already gained
the patronage of powerful friends. It is probable that while engaged on his
early comedies, Shakespeare (continuing to re-handle dramas for the stage)
set about the revision of the old historical plays, The Contention and The True



Digitized by



Google



THE CHRONOLOGY OF SHAKESPEARE'S WRITINGS. xxv
Tragedy,* and was assisted by Marlowe, one of the original authors of the old
plays. Thu^ came the Second and Third Parts of Henry VI, to be written,
and the character of Richard in those plays was recognized by Shakespeare as
so admirable a creation fbr dramatic purposes, that he proceeded to a new
play, of which he was sole author, in which Richard should be the principal,
one might almost say the only, actor. * Richard II L was a character so essen-
tially Marlowesque, and Shakespeare had been so lately working in conjunction
with that great poet, that he carried on the Marlowesque spirit from Henry VI,



Online LibraryWilliam Michael Rossetti William ShakespeareThe complete works of Shakespeare: With a critical biography → online text (page 2 of 224)